The Man He Grew to Be

I’ve been going to too many funerals lately – the mothers and fathers of my friends are passing.  We are at that age when our parents are at that stage.   We are losing the people that gave us life and helped to define us.   It’s grief at its greatest and demands the greatest of strengths to move forward, such as acceptance, understanding and forgiveness.

At a memorial service I attended recently for a friend’s father, in the eulogy he read to attendees, these three hallmarks of healing were explored with honesty and impact.  With his permission, and edited to maintain privacy, I am sharing his words here.

The Man He Grew To Be

The ebb and flow

The leaves fall

The snow blankets

The leaves bud

The sun warms

Out of habit I dialed my dad yesterday…he didn’t pick up.  I would have said to him:

Dad, distilling our complicated relationship into a short speech is almost impossible.  When I saw you for the last time, I asked for your help with your eulogy.  And frankly, you weren’t much help.

You said:  “When someone dies in their 90’s, you celebrate, you don’t mourn.”

I replied: “But it’s sad.”

And you said:  “Of course, it’s sad.  But it doesn’t matter, it’s part of life.”

It does matter, Dad.  I didn’t want you to die.  I didn’t want the responsibilities and mortality it implies.  And I sure as hell didn’t want to write this eulogy.

Growing up, you weren’t the best father.  My childhood memories are not nostalgic.  You were towering, aloof, and cutting.

I remember family dinners together and mom’s great cooking where you acted like the “Lord of the manor.”  You seemed so imposing, yet, I realize now, you were deeply insecure, probably stemming from your own troubled relationship with your mother.  I’m sad you endured all that.  You always needed to feel important and, despite your doubts, I assure you, you were.

I respected your keen intellect and power, but we weren’t close then.  Having no brothers, and skipping a grade, I didn’t really understand a close male relationship until I later befriended other important male figures in my life.

When I was in my late teens, I had a rough go in high school: you and mom were divorcing, and my emancipation into adulthood was stormy.  These were difficult times for us.  In some societies, a boy isn’t considered a man until he physically fights his father.  One day it almost came to that, but now, I can’t remember why.

When you remarried, you mellowed, and our connection changed.  You were a better father, husband, and grandfather with her family.  And while somewhat jealous, I was proud of your maturation.

We bonded while watching my son’s basketball games.  You and my son shared a life experience that brought you closer and I was so grateful I could share my own challenges as a father with you.  I loved weekends in the fall when you would visit and we would go to yard sales.  Or when you would take me to the ballet on my birthday and we would eat on the terrace at the Met.  I loved those nights.  Over many years, I began to forgive you as I’m sure you forgave me.

After you passed I went to your apartment building and ran into the manager.  Like many others, when hearing of your death, she burst into tears.  These reactions struck me, and I had to reflect.  For me, the injustices of our past eclipsed your finer points, but other people didn’t suffer those, and only then did I appreciate the things that made you great.

That last time, I asked you for life’s secret message.  You said: “I’m 92.  I don’t have the secret.  I wish there was a secret, but we all live our lives.  We do the best we can and there’s always room for growth and redemption and fulfillment.  There’s always a way to be a better person.  There’s always a way to earn the love and trust and respect of those around us even we’ve done things to lose it.  It’s not an easy path but if there’s one lesson I have learned over my life it’s that.  And that’s good enough for me.”

I sat there in the hospital and listened, I thought about one of our father/son interactions: the money I stole from you when I was in high school.  When you went to play tennis on Saturdays, you would leave your huge dad-wad of cash in your slacks.  Like a death-defying ninja, with heart racing, I would sneak into your bedroom and take a few hundred.  Over time, it must have been a couple thousand.

One day, when I was about 30, I handed you $500. You looked at me and I said: “Dad, just take it.”  Somehow, you immediately knew it was for the money I had taken.  And I knew you knew.  But we also both knew it wasn’t nearly enough to repay you.  We just looked at each other and smiled and never discussed it again.

I love you Dad and I’ll really miss the man you grew to be.